Notes on Leading a Seminar

This Monday I was in charge of leading our seminar on medieval paleography. Leading up to the seminar I was very nervous. However, once the discussion began I was able to quickly get over my nerves. Everyone seemed prepared and discussion came easily (I am very thankful to you all for this). Some of you shared answers to questions that I would have never thought of. It made me realize just how important our collaboration in this class can be. Towards the end of class we even got to experiment with different types of writing instruments which was very exciting. I have displayed above my attempt at writing some early gothic script – it was much more difficult than I had anticipated.

Some things I found helpful for preparing to lead my seminar: I had done the readings ahead of time and had copied out important details with the page numbers they could be found on. This left me with a detailed outline of each individual reading. However, I ended up with ten pages of notes. I know that in order to explain all of these points I had highlighted I would have had to talk for far too long. I then went through my notes and highlighted and annotated topics that I thought would be relevant to our discussions. I used these key themes to base my discussion questions around. Surprisingly, most things that I had included on these ten pages came up anyway, through discussion. Which led me to conclude that when highlighting key points in the readings during your seminar you should not aim to highlight everything but instead aim to spark discussion that will reveal important topics. Your classmates have all done the same readings and are knowledgeable on the same topics so if they are relevant there is a high likelihood they will come up. If not, you can guide the discussion in that direction.

Even though my seminar leading experience ran relatively smoothly, I have an idea of some changes I will make for next semester. I intend to begin preparing for my next seminar over winter break as it is a very tedious and time consuming process (much more so than I had anticipated). I also intend to integrate my questions into my short discussions of each text. I will do this to a) avoid talking alone for a long period of time and b) allow more time for discussions.

Thank you all for your interesting contributions to our discussion this week!

Medieval Paleography

Good evening students of HIST 4006 (and anyone else who happens to check this blog),


Tomorrow I will be leading our seminar on paleography, or, researching and dating changes in writing patterns and practices. I am nervous to lead this seminar but know that I am in a classroom full of supportive peers. For this class we are expected to be familiar with five separate chapters.


The first chapter comes from the textbook and details the different types of text and decoration that are present in manuscripts. It begins with detailing the tools that are used such as the parchment, penknife, ink, etc. It provides some instructions for making ancient ink as well. It explains the different stages of copying and the set up a monk would have when writing manuscripts. One particularly interesting part of this chapter is the pecia. This is a system used in early universities where a copy of the required text was rented out to students to allow them to make their own copies and then returned after completion.


The next chapter we are required to read for this class also comes from our textbook and outlines the correction, glossing, and annotation process in medieval manuscripts. It details how corrections were done when the manuscript was complete and provides examples of types of corrections that are made. For example, the most common mistake, the ‘eyeskip’ was when a monk missed part of a manuscript when copying. These mistakes were scraped off using a penknife and the corrections were made accordingly. This chapter also details how glossing became more complex during the period of study (12th century onward). Various annotations were also explained in this chapter such as finding aids, line fillers, pen trials, etc.


The third reading for this class is also from the textbook and details how to differentiate and date various types of text found on medieval manuscripts. It explains the transition from quadrata which begins and ends with diamond shaped serifs to semi-quadtra, praescissa, and eventually rotunda in which all text is all upright and angular. This chapter shows different scripts and provides some clarification for letters that are biting and/or different than we would expect.


The fourth text is written by Kwakkel and focuses on the dating and evolution of Caroline minuscule script to gothic by examining different ‘feet’. This was a shift that he argues occurred from the 11th to 13th centuries. He explains that change most likely originated in small influential groups before becoming so widespread. He details the shift from caroline minuscule to gothic and some of its chrematistic changes including narrower letters, fusions being introduced, more angular appearance, etc. Through the analyzation of over 300 manuscripts he was able to somewhat track the progression of this change, believing it to have originated in Normandy.


Finally, the last reading for this week was by Wakelin. His article focuses on the evolution of how writing books evolved over time. He explains how time consuming the process copying manuscripts was and explained that this was carried out on top of a large number of tasks monks were expected to complete daily. He explains how at the time there was notions of what script was acceptable for certain writings. He too discusses the changes that occurred with the shift to gothic script, mainly the thick vertical lines and thin horizontal ones, as well as the introduction of biting. However, he focuses on the adoption of cursive as well. This was a practice that was adopted from the late 13th century onward and was most likely the result of wanting to improve productivity rates. Cursive allowed the monks to work faster and thus produce manuscripts cheaper. He explains that the more time consuming writing was the more important it was. Even with the introduction of cursive, works of importance often continued to be written in the more time consuming gothic script.


Some questions to consider for class:


  1. What can historians learn from the fact that different processes of the manuscript were carried out in different locations by the 13th century? Ex. The script was written and pages were sent elsewhere for images to be added.
  2. The pecia university system that allowed students to rent books in order to write their own notes functioned somewhat similarly to our library reserves system. Students could borrow books to learn from and make their own copies but were fined if they failed to return them. What can this tell us about the importance of notetaking in the medieval world? Do you think we are still learning in a similar way?
  3. Some manuscripts were illuminated with gold. This process would require the patron to pay for the metal itself and the time of a metalworker in addition to a scribe. What does this tell us about the importance placed on manuscripts in the 13th century?
  4. Some shifts in writing patterns such as caroline minuscule to gothic happened most likely, as Kwakkel mentioned, due to a small group of influential scribes making a change that spread. If it does not speed up the writing process, what is another reason this script may have caught on?

I hope you all enjoyed your reading week and I will see you in class tomorrow!

Week 5 discussion- Writing Supports

Hi everyone, I am so sorry that this is so late…. Full disclosure, I completely forgot that we are supposed to make blog posts after we lead seminar discussions (I actually forgot we had this blog in the first place because we have approximately 6000 different websites associated with this class and I am truly ScatterBrained. I only remembered when I saw Lynsay’s post, thanks girl) Sorry everyone!!

Leading seminar last week was a little fun, and very scary. For those who missed class, Marc invited two impressive strangers to listen in, which was so intimidating and super awful for me. Professor Nelles also came in to talk about grad school, and you can find that info on slack/culearn/email/one of the other thousand interfaces we have. We discussed writing supports, also known as the things used to write stuff on. Our discussion was predominantly driven by the chapter reading and Saenger’s article about silent reading in the Middle Ages.  We distinguished two “types” of writing supports during discussion- the Ps (papyrus, parchment, and paper) and the others mentioned in chapter 1 (metal, wax, wood, etc).

The Ps are the most recognizable/ “normal” writing supports to our modern brains, since paper has survived as the most popular form (until now, as we are experiencing a shift towards digital writing supports). The two categories are mostly discrete since parchment and paper was used for different things than wax and metal. In general, parchment and paper were  liked for its longevity and association with important information, whereas the others were used for more temporary or portable work. Wax was notable for its erasability. We considered why parchment became the most widely used writing support in the MA. Parchment offered a permanence that other writing supports couldn’t, and most notably it could be made into a codex, which became the ultimate vessel for writing and recording information in the Middle Ages. Parchment also provided the right colour and texture for writing and drawing.

Saenger’s article was not directly about writing supports, but rather the culture around writing and reading in the Middle Ages. The article covered a huge amount of time and space, from the Roman Empire up until the Early Modern period, which was in an effort to demonstrate how there was a distinct change from reading aloud to reading silently. Writing in the dominantly oral reading culture of Rome was practiced as per cola et commata, which means that the scribe would write in a way that was designed to be read aloud in (syllabic phrases rather than words). The rise of vernacular language in the Middle Ages meant that people no longer spoke Latin, and therefore could not read by phrases in the Roman tradition. The incorporation of spaces between words made reading silently possible.

Finally, I wanted us to consider how digitizing medieval writing supports can be challenging, since the information we gather from them is often hard to impart through the interwebs. For example, it is distinctly difficult to describe with words the sound that a particularly thick sheet of parchment makes when you wiggle it. Digitizing these sources usually means pictures, which adds a level of removal from the source.  However, there are also upsides, like new and exciting access to sources that may have been inaccessible before digitization.

Monks, Scribes and Transcribing… Oh My!

This week in class we began the increasingly tedious task of transcribing our medieval manuscripts. One might think “oh well, this must be easy, all I’m doing is copying what I see in front of me!”. To a new transcriber, that thought is so wrong, so very, very wrong. Medieval Latin has this “amazing” thing where it uses unfamiliar abbreviations, sometimes there are no breaks in sentences or words and occasionally the letters do not look how they do in today’s modern alphabet. It took me an hour to transcribe 3 short lines of my manuscript, and there are definitely some questionable words I have created, due to the fact that I cannot decipher the correct letters and/or spelling. While this process is ridiculously frustrating, it is also incredibly fascinating (if you like this kind of stuff, that is). While I spent my time trying to configure my 3 lines, I came to think: “if I’m struggling with 3 lines, how on earth did monks copy/transcribe whole volumes of books?!”.  It wasn’t as simple as copying line per line; most of the time Latin was not the first language of monks (depending on where they were from), so copying Latin texts was no easy feat – or even if they spoke Latin flawlessly, a lot of texts were in Greek as well. This all lead to my final question, how or why did monks transcribe? Where did it begin? So I did some further research to find out.
I came across a fantastic website from Dartmouth University called Dartmouth Ancient Books Lab, which offers historical background on paleography, codicology and papyrology.  The specific article I looked at is called Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, which explains the origins of copying texts. It all began with an Egyptian Christian named Pachomius who believed that all monks should be literate, and then some two hundred years later a man named Benedict established an Italian monastery called Monte Cassino.[1] From there, Benedict created guidelines, which he called Rule of Saint Benedict, and describes what the daily routine of a monk should be (which included tons of reading).[2] Soon after, copying texts became part of a monk’s life, due to a man named Cassiodorus’s Institutes rule book.[3] Monks believed that copying texts, especially biblical texts, were a way to spread the word of god and to fight the “snares of the devil”.[4] They often worked grueling hours, especially if they were particularly skilled at copying texts, which could lead the monks to feel anxious, hopeless and apathetic.[5] This was known as acedia, or as we know it today, depression (I mean who wouldn’t feel these things after sitting hours and hours a day inside with little to no conversation).
Not only was the copying and reading manual labour, there were also some issues that arose with it. For one, human error is inevitable, so words were spelt wrong, miscopied, forgotten or skipped on purpose (or sometimes even entire lines were just eradicated from the copied text).[6]
There were so many difficulties that a monk faced on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to believe that people worked with these conditions. After writing this post I definitely feel I got the better end of the stick then the monks, and I’ll have to remember that copying my 13-line manuscript is not as grueling as a monk’s work!

If you want a more detailed explanation of a monk’s work, then check out these websites:


[1] Victoria Corwin, “Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life,” para. 1, Trustees of Dartmouth College, May 24th 2016,

[2] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[3] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[4] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.1.

[5] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.2.

[6] Corwin, Medieval Book Production and Monastic Life, para.3.


A late introduction (blog bio)

Greetings, my name is Ian Kerr and I am a history major with third year standing, and I am currently in the process of earning my BA Honors degree. I’ve always been extremely interested in Ancient history and ancient societies such as Ancient Greece, Rome and Ancient Egypt to name a few. However, one of my main passions ever since I was a little kid was my fascination with the middle Ages, particularly the culture and the imagery associated with the era Knights, Kings, Queens, Bishops and so forth, and as such I’ve always wanted to learn more about the era in general. I chose this course because it seems like one of the best opportunities I will ever get to learn about this culture and actually interact with pieces of medieval history first hand, as well as being able to analyze and discuss them, so I am very excited to be taking this course. Some random things about me are that I have a Siamese cat named Benkei (named after the Japanese warrior monk folk hero, who according to legend held a bridge against 20-40 enemy soldiers in one of the most memorable epic last stands in history. Another random thing is that I really enjoy video games, particularly any strategy or fantasy games, such as World of Warcraft and StarCraft 2 or the total war strategy game series. Overall, I am really looking forward to taking this course throughout the year, meeting all of you, and of course learning some really neat stuff about the middle ages.